As in any well done science work, new information that can be verified may change our understanding of the world. We can only learn ‘the next step’, we can never completely know the depth and complexity of the world from any one perspective. And so now lichenologists have found something new going on in lichens that revised our understanding of when lichens first appeared on earth as well as what makes a lichen; at least certain lichens. I suspect they will always fool us; they are too complex to box into a category and leave them there.
The study originally looked for reasons some fungi and algae ‘hug’ each other and don’t let go. But along the way, the evidence seemed to show that fungi figured out how to do this in many places and times, not just from one ancestor. The earliest fungi to do this, that humans have evidence of so far, do not show up before ferns and a few other plants. So it may be that lichen did not colonize land before plants.
There may still be more surprises in the fossil records, and we may need to revise this story again in the future. It’s like a big puzzle; each piece is useful but only part of the picture. Even though we don’t have the whole puzzle figured out, we do see part of the story. Making adjustments, like sorting pieces-sky pieces we know go near the top of the puzzle, water pieces near the bottom- helps understand the patterns of life on earth even as we continue to search for the details.
For a life as simple looking as lichen are (to us), they do have amazing abilities to be flexible and adaptable; traits we might find useful. So the scientists continue to look for why and how the lichen do what they do, and I’ll let you know when I find out too!
(The title image is Chicken-of-the-Woods, growing behind my horse barn, on an old log.)
My friend Peter Schmidt was visiting Germany recently and found this tree branch in a woodland area. He thoughtfully shared it with your local Lichen Hunter. I have no idea what it is, but am going to spend some time with my lichen resources to challenge myself.
On the left there are some distant branches with yellow lichen; a careful look around this woodland might find more interesting species in addition to these bright yellow ones.
Here’s a closer view. Although the resolution is not good enlarged, we can see it is a foliose type of lichen; it has some leafy growth in areas and looks wrinkled, as if it is not tightly attached to the branch, as a crustose lichen would be.
Last summer I posted images from British Columbia, Canada, of the yellow lichens that are very common there in the fir and spruce forests.
The Letharia is a fruticose type lichen; it has branches, grows upright or trailing and is attached to the tree at small, discrete spots, just like a shrub growing in the ground.
Letharia vulpina uses vulpinic acid to make the yellow color, which is poisonous. In some parts of the north it has been used as a poison to kill wolves and other animals. It is toxic to any meat-eating mammal, as well as to molluscs and insects. But it does not affect mice and rabbits! The lichens use vulpinic acid to control the amount of light absorbed. (Lichen Biology, Thomas H. Nash III). The German lichen may use a different chemical to make its yellow color; a mystery I won’t solve today.
Remember, look for the Tiny Ones when you are out walking.
It’s raining tonight (February 23rd) and quite unpleasant outside. Today I retrieved from a drawer the lichen samples I collected last summer in Canada, with the intention of finally identifying the species. While traveling I discovered that the plastic clam boxes that fruit is sold in make great traveling sample containers for all sorts of delicate pieces of lichen as well as shells, bark, fallen birds’ eggs and dead bugs. I like to bring home all those things, look at them for a while then return them to the woods and fields to keep their place in the cycle of life.
Often, in many places, the only way berries and other small produce is sold is in plastic clamshell boxes, so I ended up with a few of them during our travels. I don’t buy food in plastic containers, but made a temporary exception during a few days of the trip. The paper envelopes usually used to hold lichen samples work the best, and they too can rejoin the circle of life when we are done using them. So now I’m sorting out the lichens from their plastic cages, and enjoying the memories of finding them during the summer’s travels.
The Peltigera in British Columbia can also be found here in Wisconsin. When walking the KVR Wintergreen Bluff Trail stop at Lichen Site 4 (the rocky flat area) and look carefully for this species. There is quite a large area of them. Please stay on the trail while looking, so you don’t crush the Tiny Ones! At different times and weathers, these lichens will change dramatically, from being almost invisible to looking like they do in this picture.
Here’s what the bench land looks like above the Columbia River in southeast British Columbia. This is a Nature Conservancy area so has been protected from excessive damage. Much of the bench lands are built on, and the lichens are few in those places.
Walking the trails here, this is what the ground looks like:
While walking, and especially biking through here, looking out at the scenery or the next obstacle to maneuver around, the life on the ground is something no one notices. Yet this microbiome is holding all the larger life in place, creating and protecting an environment, shelter, food supply system, promoting health, preventing erosion and more. As it disappears when we travel over it or dig it up, the diversity and therefore the sustainability of the whole area fails.
When we step on the ground here, it sounds a bit crunchy, and it is; the dry lichens break off and the delicate crust on the surface of the ground is broken open. All dry, open soils naturally have some microbiome crust, unless disturbed. This allows dry grasslands and even deserts to support a tremendous variety and number of living beings, from plants to insects, birds, mammals, reptiles and even humans.
These dry grassy areas in the western areas of our continent should be covered in some form of this microbiome. When visiting these areas, go slowly and look at what is on the soil and rocks, then step carefully. There is a miniature world at your feet as complex as the world of trees, grass and animals we are familiar with.
Leaving the dry grasslands and moving into the more tree covered slopes of the lower mountain elevations, there continues to be much life on the soil and rocks, but the trees also support a vast community of lichens. From deep rainforest communities to dry open pine forest, lichens love it here.
The colors and shapes rival any garden. Each time a new rock is found, the lichen shapes and colors are different. Trees are festooned with bright yellow, pale yellow and greens of Usnea and Vulpicida as well as the grays and greens and blacks of Letharia, Hypogemnias and more.
Yes, I do get those seed catalogs, and can get lost dreaming in them on winter days, but an excellent variation of that pastime is looking at lichen pictures. If there are not enough pictures here for you, try the best lichen picture site ever -Stephen Sharnoff’s amazing website. Add some color and amazement to your gray winter days by sharing this lichen blog and Sharnoff’s site too, with others, especially kids!
Contact us at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve if you want help learning about lichens. Come out and walk the Lichen Trail. Even in winter you’ll find some color and intrigue in Lichen Land. Thanks for reading this blog. Please share with others, to spread the news about our friends in Lichen Land.
It’s hard to stop at just one poem. Now I’m looking for quotes about lichens, and more poetry too. So here is another lichen poem, by a trained biologist. This one goes deep into Lichen’s personal life. You might enjoy having a glossary of lichen terms nearby to get the most out of her verse, but even without that, I hope you are amused. She gives a fairly good synopsis of lichen life. Memorize the poem (why not?) and amaze your friends.
Lichen Poem by Caryl Sue (National Geographic/BioBlitz)
Their love can be a bit crustose
with areoles in bloom;
Their love can produce thread-like string,
called hyphae, when they plume.
Their love has colonized the Earth
from deserts to the ice;
These extremophiles exist
on sand, on trees, on gneiss.
Who could these star-crossed lovers be?
Why are they symbiotes?
They reproduce asexually
unlike us mammal folk.
A fungus, a mycobiont,
is one part of the pair-
It often lives all on its own:
itself, dead things, and air.
The other love, photobiont
can turn light into food;
The trick is photosynthesis
a skill that’s pretty shrewd.
Photobionts can be algae,
Some lucky fungi can have both
at once, and that’s a fact.
A pair now caught between two worlds
not fungi, not algae
A composite organism
of one, or two, or three.
United now, this smart couple
sets out to reproduce;
Small spores or fragments of themselves
are set on winds, diffuse.
Some reproduce by using spores,
sped off to parts unknown.
These fungi that do not find mates
are doomed to die alone.
are reproductive packs
In orange, or green, or yellow hues,
or purple, white, or black.
O foliose! O fruticose!
O squamulose, and more!
The fungi and the algae have
so many types in store.
Animals use them for their nests—
hummingbirds and turkey;
They’re almost all that reindeer eat
in the winter, murky.
People eat them as “famine food”,
They’re not a tasty treat.
They’re used in herbal remedies-
in dyes, and perfumes sweet.
So, once upon a time ago,
fungi, algae convince—
They fell in love, and they have been
lichen it ever since.
Poetry and lichens are two inspirations for me. I wrote a little lichen poem:
I’m liken’ lichens
they’re lookin’ lovely,
Like little lilies
all lined up on a log.
Of course it’s not very ‘good’! But it is fun. Lichens often seem very cheerful and playful. Any time there are so many shapes and colors, there has to be a party going on. I think it is the party of Life happening!
Greater poets than I have also noticed lichens, and each poet has a unique perspective. Pablo Neruda is one of my favorite poets. Here is his poem about lichens.
Lichen on Stone by Pablo Neruda
Lichen on stone: the web
of green rubber
weaves an old hieroglyphic,
unfolding the script
of the sea
on the curve of a boulder.
The sun reads it. The mollusk devours it.
Fish slither on stone,
with a bristling of hackles.
An alphabet moves in the silence,
printing its drowned incunabula
on the naked flank of the beaches.
climb, higher, plaiting and braiding,
piling their nap in the caverns of
the ocean and air, coming and going,
until nothing may dance but the wave
and nothing persist but the wind.
If you are not familiar with Neruda’s work, read his Ode to Socks, and you will have a new love for a good pair of socks. Speaking of socks, I would love to have a nice warm pair of winter socks, with lichens crocheted or knitted around the top. It would go splendidly with my Lichen Hat. But my knitting skills are a long way from accomplishing those socks. Speaking of warm socks, now that it’s colder, and here in the Kickapoo, mostly damp and wet, it’s a good time to check your favorite rock or tree trunk for lichen activity. Of course, you won’t actually see any movement, but this is where memory is an important part of learning. Remember the last time you looked at that tree or rock?
These two images of lichen covered rock are not exactly the same place, but illustrate the differences that can occur between wet and dry conditions. What is inconspicuous one day will be illuminated with color another day. Winter is a great time to see lichens, as the leaves that often cover them are gone. If there is not much snow the lichens are very visible, and of course on trees they are always visible.
If you see a beautiful lichen (use your hand lens!) and are inspired to write a poem, or just want to describe and complement the lichen, send your comment to this blog. If you give your name, I’ll send you a hand lens! Anonymous is ok too. Poems can be any length, any style, any degree of expertise; new poets are especially encouraged (I am one too). There will be a visit to the lichens, to read the poems to them, and anyone can come along for Lichen Hiking. Thanks for sharing this blog, and spreading Lichen Love!
There are numerous people who have been writing about the world we live in, in a way different than the explorers and scientists of years ago. Of these newer voices (there are some are of an earlier time) Robin Kimmerer is one writer I feel a particular kinship with, as she writes of mosses. To me, lichen and moss share a similar place in the world even though they have unique qualities and functions. They are of the ‘Tiny Ones’ as I call them; the ones we do not notice while we are watching out for the large, moving, and to us thrilling big animals, or giant trees or rare birds.
Ms. Kimmerer speaks of relationships; she orients us to life from the ground up, from the small lives that weave all the Web of Life together, and then make most of the adjustments to keep the whole Dance alive. If you are interested in the lichens’ intricate world that is almost hidden in the forests you enjoy on hikes and rides and paddling the river, take some time with the mosses too. They might be easier to identify! But don’t think that they are simple or boring because they are small. Gathering Moss opens another way into the vast and complex world of, truly, most of the life around us. Check it out from the library this winter. As with finding lichens, winter can be a good time to find beautiful mosses, especially when we have some milder days. The cool temperatures and moisture from melting snow make conditions that lichen and moss love. They are hydrated and show off form and colors very dramatically.
When out walking, observe the base of trees, rocky areas and sometimes soil also. The Kickapoo Valley Reserve and nearby forests have many moss species. As with observing lichens, a small hand lens is invaluable for seeing the tiny features that are hard to notice otherwise.
Below is a painting I just finished, of lichen and moss on a river cliff near Bridge 8. The lichen really are that turquoise color, under certain conditions.
Let’s go out in the woods, and make friends with the mosses as well as the lichens. See you out there!
Here in Lichen Land, the tiny but vast community of lichens, bryophytes and fungi are having a party on the Wintergreen Trail. Cladonia and Peltigera, Stereocaulon and Candelariella, Xanthoparmelia and a small crowd of their crustose friends are sporting fancy apothecia (disc or cup that produces spores) in many shapes and colors. The place is decorated in the brightest colors-turquoise, jade green, yellow, white, black, gray, brown, rust, pale blue. A Cladonia first caught my eye; she was fringed and spangled with intricate weavings of pale green, crowned with a russet apothecia/cap perched on her tall slender podetia (stalk). Many other Cladonias waved jade colored cups, some fringed and some smooth edged. The Peltigera rufescens, that not long ago sported velvety gray thallus and dramatic, hooded, vase-like apothecia, now were a bit faded in places. But some of them had grown dozens of tiny, white rhizines (root like structures) from the underside of the thallus (the vegetative part of a lichen that contains the photobiant and mycobiont.
All this elaborate activity goes on within one inch of the ground. A wrong step by a human would destroy many years of growth. But you can join the party; pack a 6x or 10x hand lens, your camera, and just walk into Lichen Site 4. They’ll all be there. Once you step down the two stone steps and turn right, slow down. Stop. Take out the hand lens. Breathe and relax. Even though it’s a party down there, we need to slow down to join up with the Tiny Ones.
Have you ever hunted for 4-leaf clovers? Use the same type of gaze and attitude; you’ll be more successful with lichens because there are so many of them, you can’t miss them. Once a few are seen on the pine needle covered ground you will start to see the stalk-like podetia everywhere. Get down close to them, use your hand lens held close to your eye, then move closer or farther from the lichen to focus, keeping the lens close to your eye.
At ground level the elaborate, fringed structures make a fairyland scene. A few weeks ago, the podetia were straight and smooth pointed stalks. Now they sport cups, caps and fringes. The thallus (the leafy part) may have rhizines, brighter color and also more elaborate shapes. There are many very tiny lichen growing among the taller ones so be careful where you step! It truly is a forest in miniature, with a canopy, mid layer and ground layer of plants and animals.
There are several types and species of lichen sharing Cladonia’s forest. Peltigera sp. has been introduced earlier, but there are many more lichen here. On the edge of the narrow pathway, rocks with lichens barely discernible in the summer now are alive with color and texture. These are crustose lichens, and there are quite a few species here. Many
species of crustose lichen on the rocks at this site have produced apothecia. Look for dark spots in the light colored crustose lichen body. Most of the lichen on these rocks are white, gray, or blue-gray. There also are some black crustose lichen here. Look closely with your hand lens to check for apothecia on the black lichen; they are hard to see. How many different species of lichen can you find? These can be very hard to identify without a high powered microscope to see details, and chemicals to test certain reactions lichens may have. At this time, the Lichen Hunters are simply recognizing these are ‘crustose’ forms.
On the low, sandy cliff (the cliff is 2-3 feet high) at the top of this area, the walls have been decorated in turquoise, green and white. The colors are bright and clear. In the shadows under the rocky overhang, the gauzy, lacy texture of lichen mixed with moss, spider webs and falling grains of sand make a confusing scene. What is lichen, and what is sand grains, or spider webs?
As the sunbeams illuminated strands of turquoise and green against the dark recesses it seemed to be an endless mass of tangled threads. Much of the lichen here is probably a Stereocaulon sp. commonly called ‘Rock Foam’. There are several species, some of which, in the arctic, are food for caribou during famine.
Pixie Foam, a miniature Stereocaulon species, often grows where there is a high concentration of metals in the rock. Lichens are used all over the world to prospect for minerals by analyzing the mineral content of the lichen thallus. (From ‘Lichens of the North Woods).
How many species of lichens can you sort out, under the sandy ledge? There are also mosses, ferns and fungi here. How many different life forms can you find, of any kind? This is a rich, active place, yet we know almost nothing about the lives here, or what their place in the world might be.
This visit to Lichen Land left me feeling as if I’d crashed a party. The last time I was here, the lichen were growing podetia but were much smaller. Today I crossed the threshold of two stone steps into their world, and it had changed dramatically. Colors were brilliant, forms were elaborate; the lichens seemed more alive! They didn’t seem like the same lichens I’d seen earlier. It was quiet, but I felt there was music and shouting and dancing going on, in a tiny way. It felt like a party.
As I walked away I thought about how the earth, rock, sand, and trees, each have a community of lichen. They are not plants, they are not animals; they are simply something else. What do they weave for the web of life in the world as we know it? Why do they cover such a large part of the earth’s land surface? There are over a hundred species of lichens on the base of the trees in the Kickapoo Valley Reserve. We don’t know how many different ones are in the canopy, or the soil or on the rocks here. Everything in Nature has a place and a purpose. The Lichen Hunters are exploring what that might be for the lichens in the Kickapoo. Come on out for a walk in the woods and help us learn about the Tiny Ones.